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Have Treatment? We'll Travel!

Whether it's laser eye surgery in Canada, dental work in Mexico, or therapeutic massages in Thailand, Americans have a long history of seeking medical treatment in faraway places.

August 28, 2000|BENEDICT CAREY and JANE E. ALLEN | TIMES HEALTH WRITERS

"Sickness is a journey," as some philosopher must have said, sometime. And if it's true, then there's no reason why getting better can't involve a little travel too. Especially now, late August, when Southern California is on a slow boil. Oh, the heart does long to escape, and what better excuse than some exotic, soothing therapy--or a chance to save a few bucks.

Not that health care in this country is inadequate; patients around the world are waiting to get a room at the Mayo Clinic, the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Stanford University Medical Center--any good U.S. hospital--knowing that this country's technology and standards of care are second to none.

And alternative medicine here is superb. You can get a Swedish massage, Chinese herbs, a course in Qi Gong, all administered expertly, and all without leaving Santa Monica.

Still, Americans have been traveling long distances for health care ever since we got here. Benjamin Franklin went to Paris in the late 18th century not only to negotiate treaties with France, but also to seek treatment for gout. Through the 19th century, men and women of means regularly traveled to the spas of Germany for "rejuvenation." In more recent decades, Americans have flown to Germany for lithotripsy, in which ultrasonic waves are used to break up kidney stones; and couples seeking treatment for male infertility flew to Belgium, where a pioneering doctor first began injecting sperm directly into egg cells.

Both techniques soon were widely available here, and the traffic to Berlin and Brussels dried up.

And yet the journeys continue, to a variety of places, and for a variety of reasons. Curiosity. Adventure. Lower costs. Here is an informal sampling of some destinations that Americans are traveling to in search of something different:

Canada

Canadian border crossing agents are used to seeing them now, the cars with U.S. plates, the drivers staring out through anxious, bespectacled eyes--eyes bound for one of Canada's scores of laser eye surgery centers. The most popular procedure, Lasik, mainly for nearsightedness, was widely available in Canada in the early 1990s, several years before it took off in the U.S. So eye doctors up north should have that much more experience. And with the weak Canadian dollar, it's cheaper, by $1,000 to $2,000--although prices, as in this country, can vary a lot. Indeed, at larger clinics near the border, most or nearly all the patients come from the United States. Some ride up in shuttle buses provided by the eye clinic.

U.S. doctors suspect all that traffic has spawned what they derisively call "Lasik mills," clinics that treat a high volume of patients, sometimes at the expense of personal attention. If you're tempted to go, ask your own local eye doctor to recommend a clinic--and provide follow-up care, if necessary. And plan to see Vancouver Island or Banff before going under the beam. The world often looks blurred and sparkly for a day or two after your visit to the clinic.

Mexico

"Crowns, root canals, caps--I get it all done in Tijuana," says Ned Baughman, 50, a painter living in Los Angeles. "I've gone so often, the dentist has become a friend of mine."

In border towns like Tijuana, Mexicali and especially Los Algodones, just south of Yuma, Ariz., Mexican dentists are openly courting U.S. residents. With a population of just 10,000, Los Algodones has dozens of dental offices, which serve many of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who cross the border each year for cheaper prescription drugs and medical care. Dental work in Mexico costs about a third of what U.S. dentists charge. "If you don't have insurance," says Baughman, "that's a huge difference."

The quality of the work varies with the dentist. Baughman has had no trouble with his fillings and crowns. At the same time, dentists in California and Arizona can tell stories about crowns and root canals gone terribly awry. You must choose carefully: Ask about the dentist's experience, and ask to talk to former patients. "And get there early in the day," says Baughman. "They do make appointments, but really they take whoever's there first."

Southwestern U.S.

Of course, you don't have to leave the country to find wholly different healing practices: Some originate right here.

As a rule, Native American tribes are skeptical of outsiders seeking to learn their healing practices, and it's easy to see why. The demand for Native American herbs, ointments and cultural artifacts has spawned New Age trinket shops from Berkeley to Boulder and supports scores of commercial sites on the Internet. Among the few things that cannot be entirely commodified is the sweat lodge ritual, a blend of earth, fire and prayer that depends on medicine men and lodge leaders for its creation.

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